Harper’s Notes

The Harper Review’s weekly newsletter: intimacy, efficiency, artillery, and more.

The editors

December 18, 2023

Efficiency is our god: The New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority is phasing out MetroCards, and overhead speakers assure riders that transport will flow even faster once everyone uses the new contactless payment system. Contemporary society treats efficiency as an end in itself—but it never stops to consider what we’re making everything more efficient for, reflects Clare Rahner in the final essay of The Harper Review’s autumn issue. In an essay that spans the Metro, computerized refrigerators, and Tollhouse cookie dough, Rahner concludes that we’re possessed by “efficiencism” and plagued by a waning interest in simple, material joys. The Review will return in January with our winter issue.

Kissinger’s legacy: Henry Kissinger, America’s most celebrated and reviled diplomat, died last week at the age of 100. In a Foreign Affairs piece, Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye attempts the difficult task of evaluating Kissinger’s legacy from a moral standpoint. Did the ends—containing the Soviet Union—justify his means? While acknowledging what are widely considered Kissinger’s moral failings, including bombing Cambodia and supporting a Chilean coup, Nye concludes that Kissinger’s tough approach to foreign policy created a safer international order. One thing is certain: for good or ill, Kissinger’s legacy still shapes perceptions of American diplomacy at home and abroad.

Gossip as moral inquiry: Do you enjoy reading romantic advice? Are you fascinated by the tensions between our most private desires and our obligations towards others? Are you a fiend for gossip? If so, consider reading Higher Gossip: Problems in Sex and Love, novelist Lillian Fishman’s new column published in The Point. Fishman seeks to elevate the typical advice-column fare from mere behavioral prescriptions to open-ended inquiries into intimacy and the bonds of relationships. In doing so, she offers readers the opportunity to turn inward and examine the idiosyncrasies in our own intimate lives as we pry into the affairs of others. “This will be an advice column,” Fishman writes, “for those who would ask, rather than the perennial ‘What should I do?,’ the inexhaustible ‘How should I think?’”

The West’s gambit: Over the past twenty-one months, the United States has provided Ukraine with extensive military aid, sending everything from cash and body armor to tanks and artillery-delivered cluster munitions. But is this enough? Almost two years into the invasion, Ukrainian and Russian troops find themselves at an impasse with little chance of a breakthrough on either side. Russia, perhaps still hoping for a quick and easy annexation, has not reorganized its economy for total war. Ukraine, the weaker economy, continues to rely on Western aid not only to maintain current battle lines but also to mount a counteroffensive strong enough to push Russia back. Should the United States and its allies continue to supply Ukraine with the weapons necessary to end the invasion? Or would escalation resurrect the specter of nuclear confrontation? Read what West Point military history professor Frederick Kagan has to say on the matter at the link.

Mathematics on the chopping block: While the news has been full of alarm bells about the elimination of humanities programs from the University of West Virginia and other universities nationwide—including our own University of Chicago—there’s another recent trend worth considering. As Princeton University student Oliver Whang relates in a recent New Yorker article, West Virginia University’s cuts have also targeted the school’s mathematics department. Whang describes the effect of these cuts on the faculty, student body, and the state that the university serves. The mathematics department has been merged with the departments of statistics and data science; a graduate program in mathematics has disappeared; and undergraduate study emphasizes applied rather than theoretical material. Whang’s piece begs the question: what is a public education for?